Yes, wait no longer, readers – finally the time has come to look at one of the year's most notable productions, a film which combines startling action with evocative landscapes, from a director who has risen from a fairly obscure horror background to become one of the most distinctive artists in his country. Yes, it's Ben Wheatley's Sightseers!
(No, we're not doing that other review you may have been thinking of this week. It'll be here next week. It's not like there aren't ninety other reviews available elsewhere...)
I don't know, you wait years for a movie about brutal murder and dog-kidnapping and then two come along in consecutive weeks. That's about all that Seven Psychopaths and Sightseers have in common, though: Martin McDonagh's film drinks deeply of American culture, locations, and attitudes, while Wheatley's latest offering is intensely, almost painfully English in both its subject matter and its concerns.
This is the story of Tina (Alice Lowe), a woman in her 30s still living with her clingy, demanding mother, who blames her for the death of a beloved family pet in a freak charity-related accident a year earlier. But Tina is about to fly the nest, at least temporarily, for she is going on holiday with her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), something which both hope will prove to be an erotic odyssey. An erotic odyssey aboard a 1996 Abbey Cachet caravan, to be more precise, with destinations along the way including Fountains Abbey, the Keswick Pencil Museum and the Ribblehead Viaduct.
Will their adventure allow Tina to conquer her guilt over the death of the dog? Will the two forge a real and lasting relationship together? Or will Chris's interest in stopping people dropping litter, engaging in class warfare, and doing a little light serial-killing en route get in the way of their burgeoning romance?
'Show me the world, Chris,' says Tina near the start of the film. 'I think we'll start with Crich Tram Museum,' Chris replies, and this establishes the tone of Sightseers rather well. There is something peculiarly English about caravanning as a leisure pursuit – this is not one of your giant colonial Recreational Vehicles, but an unwieldy off-white box, inelegant on the outside and cramped within. Chris and Tina's selected itinerary is similarly eccentric and underwhelming. Eccentric is a good word to describe this film; underwhelming is not.
A lot of attention has been paid to the serial-killing aspect of Sightseers' storyline – this is understandable, given it's largely being advertised on the strength of Wheatley's record as director of Kill List, and executive producer Edgar Wright's involvement in Shaun of the Dead. I suspect it's much easier to sell a horror movie with some comic elements than a very black comedy-drama, which is what I would say Sightseers really is (if my Comparison Wrangler were on duty he'd doubtless describe it as 'Natural Born Killers as directed by Mike Leigh').
The campaign of bloody slaughter which becomes such an integral part of Chris and Tina's romantic getaway is not that central to the film, and when it does appear it's very much in keeping with the tone and style of the rest of it, which is concerned with the minutiae of their relationship.
There is some serious splatter at various points in this film (when Tina complains about Chris smashing a person's head in with a piece of wood, Chris responds 'he wasn't a person, he was a Daily Mail reader' – so maybe he has a point), but I found this weirdly less uncomfortable to watch than the various human interactions. Tina's relationship with her mum is squirm-worthy enough, but her romance with Chris is even worse – there's a cocktail of naivete, desperation, delight and lust going on here which rings horribly true even if much of the writing and acting is done with a broad brush. Bathos and pathos abound and you sense the writer-performers have a degree of sympathy for their characters even while they are forensically exposed to ridicule – there's a running gag about the caravan rapidly filling up with ghastly tat and Tina's awful knitted gew-gaws which I particularly liked (although, once again, Tina's woollen lingerie is probably pushing the joke too far to be credible).
One certainly gets the message that neither of these people was entirely normal even prior to the serial killing becoming an issue – though the film suggests Chris has form in this area, it really looks like this is something they fall into almost naturally as the film goes on. It definitely seemed to me that the murders are there to illustrate the state of the characters' minds and their relationship, rather than being the central subject of the film per se. If so, this works rather well right up until the end, which to me didn't quite follow from what had come before – I got a distinct sense of '90 minutes are up, better think of a finish.'
The ferociously banal nature of this sort of holiday is well-evoked and Ben Wheatley comes up with some startling effects in the course of the film – a particularly savage murder is accompanied by a distinguished thesp reading a poem on the soundtrack, for example. The micro-budget nature of the film is never really in doubt, but then this suits the story on all sorts of levels.
Sightseers is ultimately an exercise in the presentation of grotesques, and although it does this with great wit, economy, and attention to detail, this still means that it's quite a hard film to completely engage with. Serial-killing notwithstanding, this is a look at the less magnificent side of obsessiveness – it works as a comedy better than a horror movie, and a character study probably better than either. But it's fun, funny, and original: I enjoyed it a lot.